On camera: The video ref might give us a fairer game but not necessarily a better watch. (Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)
It was an amusing side attraction at first. The referee would trot off and stand awkwardly in front of his monitor as the crowd cheered to amuse themselves during the break in play.
The humour faded once the penalties began to mount. Before the World Cup group stages had been concluded, the record for the number of spot kicks had been smashed. Many came because of the first global trial of the video assistant referee (VAR).
Almost all major leagues have since adopted the system. Only the English Premier League has been slow to come to the party, although it has agreed that the technology will come into play next season.
That hasn’t prevented its teams from acquainting themselves with it.
“It’s a disgrace,” Neymar vented on Instagram after Manchester United were handed a Champions League quarterfinal spot ahead of Paris Saint-Germain (PSG), thanks, in large part, to VAR. “How do you handball behind your back? Ahh … go fuck yourselves.”
The incident was a reminder that much needs to be clarified to prevent a kerfuffle every second game.
Many football rules carry some ambiguity. The problem is now referees are asked to implement them using a system that’s designed to be unquestionably objective.
Few protests followed after the ball struck Presnel Kimpembe’s hand. Even if more United players had seen it, the ref arguably would have brushed them aside under normal circumstances. To the naked eye, this was a player jumping to block the ball and his flailing hand unintentionally got in the way of the strike. Schoolboys call this ball-to-hand.
Under the microscope of VAR, though, the ref took a different view and awarded the penalty that denied PSG a spot in the last eight of the Champions League.
All of sudden amorphous concepts such as “unnatural hand position” or “deliberate intention” were being picked apart frame by frame. What is the natural position of one’s arm? No one can really answer that. Nor can anyone expect players to run around with wrists locked behind their backs.
Surely everyone deserves clarity on these points?Preferably in the form of laws rewritten and explained for the laymen by Fifa.
The other issue raised by the Kimpembe incident is this:Who’s really calling the shots on the field? If a ref sees the incident and decides to let it go, is a VAR call a challenge to his authority?
VAR director Carlos Clos Gomez said: “The referee never asks for VAR when he is in doubt; he should officiate as if it doesn’t exist. He only goes to the monitor in subjective plays.”
That’s all well and good, except that it implies that there’s a hidden, omniscient figure constantly scrutinising the man in charge. Someone in a TV truck somewhere has the right to demand what is and isn’t viewed through their vantage point.
Most new regulations throughout the years have given us a better spectacle. What would we be watching if the offside rule never came into being? Would high-pressing Pep Guardiola even have a job in management had picked-up back passes not been outlawed as recently as 1992?
It’s hard to argue VAR is giving us a better watch. A fairer game, however? Undoubtedly.
This is all very much a developed world problem at the moment. Asked about its intentions, South Africa’s Premier Soccer League says VAR is not on the table. Among other reasons, it’s simply too expensive to roll out when there are so many other demands on the budget.
There’s a sense of irony in that for the purist. The old “colonies” outside of Europe will be playing a purer brand of football, untouched by technology, for the foreseeable future. Will the matchday experiences be noticeably different across continents?
At the very least, this is something the Neymars of this world are going to have to suck up — it’s here to stay indefinitely, after all.
We can only hope Fifa answers the questions the system is exposing. With the widely watched Premier League adopting it, expect more to pour in rapidly.